Henrietta Lacks

1 August 1920 – 4 October 1951

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells became the source of the HeLa cell line. This was the first immortalised human cell line and continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day.

In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and received treatment at Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in the area that treated black patients. During her treatment, it was discovered that her cells were uniquely immortal and were able to live and grow outside of her body doubling every 24 hours. Two samples (one healthy and one cancerous) were taken from Lacks’ cervix during cancer treatment without her permission or knowledge, and they were passed on to a cancer researcher at the hospital.

The cancerous sample eventually became known as the HeLa immortal cell line and her cells have since played a crucial role in the development of chemotherapy, gene mapping, IVF and the polio and Covid-19 vaccines, among many other things.

Lacks passed away in October 1951 and her story illustrates the racial inequalities embedded in institutional systems in the US. Consistent with the practice of the time, no consent was required to extract the cells or subsequently use them in research but her case continues to raise concerns about privacy and patients’ rights.

Meet the innovators